SELFLESS SERVICE: Interview with Amma
By John Malkin
"When you offer a flower to another person, a beautiful fragrant flower, you experience the sweet beauty and fragrance first. And then you share it with the other person. So, it gives you happiness for no particular reason, because you are selflessly serving others. You will be able to forget your self. That is real service, when you are able to forget your self and offer your self completely to the other person."
Meet Amma in person this June in the Bay Area.
Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, popularly known as Amma, is a humanitarian and a spiritual teacher to millions worldwide. She has established meditation centers in India, Japan, Europe and San Ramon, California and has helped to build schools, hospitals and orphanages, devoting her life to serving humanity. Following the December, 2004 tsunami that devastated India, Thailand and other countries, Amma pledged to raise one billion rupees ($23 million) to help aid and rebuild and affected areas.
In a break from tradition, Amma is widely known for her darshan, (meeting with a holy person), which takes the form of tender, motherly embrace. Every day she hugs thousands of people, and has been doing so since she was a young girl in her native India. She offers this compassionate and unconditional embrace to everyone as a direct gift of love, an example of the nonviolent and vital power that sustains self-transformation and social change.
An esteemed humanitarian, Amma has spoken numerous times at the United Nations, and in 2002 received the prestigious Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence at the U.N. in Geneva.
She is the subject of a soon to be released film by Dutch director Jan Kounen titled Darshan. Amma has devoted her life to selfless service and reminds all of us that happiness comes when we awaken to reality and dedicate ourselves to helping others.
As part of an annual U.S. Tour, Amma will hold public programs and an intimate retreat at her namesake Mata Amritanandamayi (MA) Center in San Ramon, California between June 6 and18. For more details about events, directions and Amma please visit www.amma.org.
This interview took place at the MA Center and was translated by Swami Amritaswarupananda and Gita Nair, with help from Br. Dayamrita Chaitanya..
John Malkin is a musician and journalist who hosts a weekly radio program on Free Radio Santa Cruz (www.freakradio.org) every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. PST. The program explores social change and spiritual growth. His work has appeared in Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma, In These Times, Alternet and The Sun. A book of his interviews with musicians, Sounds of Freedom, was recently published by Parallax Press.
JM: I think that everyone is trying to achieve happiness and freedom in their lives. People have different ideas about how to find freedom and there is a lot of effort put into gaining political power and changing structures in society. What is the best method for finding inner freedom and freedom in the world around us?
Amma: Unless individuals awaken, that freedom will not happen. First of all, we should realize that we are sleeping. That realization is more important. Unless we realize that, we will not be able to wake up. Also, in the modern society, the majority of people are pretending to be sleeping. So, it is harder. It is more difficult to awaken for such people.
We have a law and order system. We have police departments. We have military, Navy, and Air Force. Still, there are terrorist attacks and terrorists are flourishing in many countries and there are thieves and robbers and crime. So, this shows that there is something wrong with our system. That is the realization, the inner awakening. Unless the inner awakening happens, unless individuals wake up within themselves, real freedom will not happen.
Even though we have a law and order system, or we have police to enforce that law and order, there are still robbers and thieves and crimes. Even though most countries have a military force, still there are terrorists flourishing in many countries. Even though we have politicians and good administrators, still there are a lot of problems and inner conflicts in every country. That shows that there is something wrong with the system. We keep improving the external circumstances and things continue to be the same.
Of course it helps to a certain extent, but not completely. I feel that unless the inner awakening happens, unless individuals wake up and imbibe in spiritual truth, real freedom will not happen. It is not that we should not have any politics or politicians, but that alone will not help ultimately.
JM: Amma, you were given the Gandhi-King Nonviolence Award at the United Nations in 2002. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. both combined political work with spiritual growth. I wonder how, or if, Gandhi and King have influenced your efforts to bring peace to the world?
Amma: I have heard about both Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, but I did not have any opportunity to study their lives or activities. I have basically derived all of my lessons from my own experiences and also from trying to understand the sorrows and suffering of the world. I tried to imbibe it fully, to feel it as deeply as I could. That is how I was inspired. From there is where I have derived my inspiration.
Of course, they were very good examples for the world, through their lives and their teachings. They did a wonderful job. If we had more people like that, then we would not have needed the atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb. They always fought for dharma, for righteousness. They always fought for righteousness to establish their mind in society.
JM: Amma, what is the role of suffering in our world and on the spiritual path?
Amma: Sorrow, in fact, can serve like a light in darkness, if sorrow is understood properly. If we learn to penetrate beneath the surface of our sorrowful experiences, we can definitely derive a lot of wonderful experience and lessons from that. At present, we have knowledge, but not true awareness. Not real understanding. We are not even aware of our head. We become aware of our head only when we have a headache.
Sorrows can be a real inspiration in life. For example, somebody runs to a particular place. He jumps and runs and does all kinds of acrobatics to reach a particular destination. For such a person, he or she might fall into a deep ditch on their way to that destination, but that doesn't mean that they should remain in that ditch forever. That also helps the person to have the understanding that, "There could be deeper ditches in front of me, so I should be more careful. More alert." Likewise, suppose a thorn punctures the sole of my foot. That means that you should be able to know that there may be sharper thorns or more poisonous thorns in the future, so I should be more careful and more alert.
Sorrow is a part and parcel of life, from which we can learn a great deal, if we have the right understanding. The right attitude. This doesn't mean that everyone should have sorrow in their life, but, it is unavoidable, some of these experiences. Inevitable. And we can learn a lot of lessons.
Most of us know that a fire is hot and that water is cold. But for many people, unless they touch and feel, experience the heat of the fire, they won't have a real understanding or realization of it. That experience helps them to keep a distance between fire and themselves. They won't go too close to fire because it is dangerous. Likewise, we should know the nature of everything in the world, the nature of objects of the world and the nature of the world.
JM: The nature of reality?
Amma: Yes. And then, we can grow in awareness. Our awareness will also increase, which will tremendously help us in our life in this world.
JM: You mentioned terrorism, which a lot of people are afraid of now. There are also many wars happening on this planet now. Many people believe that we are living in a particularly difficult time on Earth right now. I wonder how you view the time in which we are living?
Amma: I see a lot of darkness in the world. Everyone should be extremely careful and extremely alert. When I look up, I see a lot of darkness and when I look down, I see deep ditches. Unless people are extremely careful and alert, things can become really difficult. There is a lot of fear in society. Many people have prepared themselves to accept or welcome whatever happens, particularly those who have a deeper understanding of spirituality, or the essential principles of life. They are willing to accept moving forward no matter what happens.
JM: How is it that happiness comes from serving others?
Amma: It depends on one's mental attitude. It is like how some people feel extremely happy or joyful when they give something or share something with another person. But, there are others who may feel a bit sad because "I had to share this with another person." It depends on one's mental attitude and constitution. But, for a person who has dedicated herself to the service of humanity, it is like offering a flower. When you offer a flower to another person, a beautiful fragrant flower, you experience the sweet beauty and fragrance first. And then you share it with the other person. So, it gives you happiness for no particular reason, because you are selflessly serving others. You will be able to forget your self. That is real service, when you are able to forget your self and offer your self completely to the other person.
Suppose somebody is starving for several days and then you offer some good food and when you watch him eating and see his contentment, how he appeases his hunger, you feel so much joy and contentment in yourself that you could offer this service, or this food to him.
JM: You have received a lot of press coverage during your visit to the United States and some of the newspapers refer to you as a feminist. What do you think about this? It is said that you have helped to change how men and women in India interact with each other and how different levels of people of the caste system relate to each other. What do you think about this?
Amma: I am not siding with women. I am not pointing my finger towards men. But at the same time, we should consider facts as facts and acknowledge them. Women have tremendous capacities in her which can be beneficial to society and they should be allowed to contribute their capacities, talents and skills to society in a much better way. If you observe the present system, we can see that women got voting power very recently. In many countries women have not yet become the Prime Minister or the President of the country. So, I feel that there is some injustice done.
In some countries, more than half of the population is women and still they are not properly considered. They do not get proper justice. In some places, they cannot pray, they are not allowed inside a temple or a church or mosque, so I feel that if we allow them to contribute, society will be tremendously benefited by that. That is why I talk on their behalf. They should be allowed to come forward and contribute to society. That will really improve the situation and will help society to develop.
I am not trying to put women on a higher level or men on a lower level. That is not what I am trying to do. Men and women are equal. We should accept the fact that there are certain things that men cannot do that women can do and certain things that women cannot do and men can do.
You are asking if I am a feminist. I consider other aspects of life, or things that are really important, like poverty, starvation. There are less fortunate ones, downtrodden people, people who don't even get one meal a day. Amma feels for them and considers them also.
There are primitive customs that still exist in African countries, where the women have some sort of support around their necks and if they remove this brace, they will be killed. Women are killed like that. There are several countries where a women's case is considered by a court only if she has four witnesses. This is unjust. These rules and regulations don't apply to men.
Is it dharma if one closes ones eyes when one sees such injustice done to women? They are the mothers. They give birth to everyone and that is something that all of humanity should consider. It is a great boon, a God given boon. I remind the women that they should be more patient because they are creators. Only they have the special gift of God, the womb. Even Gods and Goddesses needed a woman to give birth to them. Such injustices are done to women. In some countries they have to wear a veil. Nobody questions a man's weaknesses, but they are always pointing a finger at women's weaknesses. When a situation comes and they want to remove the ring suppose they want to take a photograph for the passport - they immediately remove the ring. I am not criticizing any religion. I am presenting certain facts.
In some countries there are even primitive customs, like stoning a woman to death. Suppose a woman is pregnant, they take the baby out and then stone the woman to death. If a woman is raped, it is not her fault. But still, she will be punished. They will take the child away and stone her to death. Even though it is not her fault at all. The man is not blamed. In fact, it is his fault. He is the one who committed the crime, but he is not punished.
JM: And yet women are punished because of this.
Amma: I am never interested in pointing out faults of one particular religion. It is a matter of habit. For example, if you have given a certain food to a certain person from a very small age, they get used to eating that food. Similarly, they get used to wearing the parda, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they like it, they are just used to it. It is a force of habit.
JM: What does it mean to surrender?
Amma: It is an attitude towards one's self. One's own self. It is an attitude that means total acceptance or removing ego, or going beyond ego. It doesn't mean that you eliminate the ego completely, but to have the ego become mature.
JM: I am grateful for this time with you and I would like to wish you a happy birthday.
Amma: I never celebrated my birthday for twenty-nine years. It is others who celebrate my birthday. I am happy that so many people are being fed on that particular day. Free food and clothes are being distributed on that particular day, so I am happy about that.